The titular nosebleed at the center of Aya Ogawa’s play belongs to their 5-year-old son, sustained on a family trip to Japan intended to help Ogawa’s children connect with their heritage, but also as a means for the playwright to reconcile with their own sense of identity and their fractured relationship with their late father.
The intensely personal subject matter emerged almost by accident, with Ogawa initially intending to interrogate the concept of failure via stories shared by a wide range of collaborators. Eventually, though, Ogawa realized for the concept to truly resonate with an audience, they would have to turn that camera on themself.
“The reason I mapped it onto my autobiography was so I could take full responsibility, and model that kind of vulnerability myself,” Ogawa said in early February from the Wexner Center, where they were preparing to stage “The Nosebleed” this week, with showings taking place Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 8-10. “And in that way, you earn the audience’s trust. … And the feedback I get from audiences is that the more specific the story, the more universal the themes seem to be.”
In the play, Ogawa portrays two characters: her late father and her son. The role of Ogawa, in turn, is filled by a quartet of actors, hinting at the multiple voices and personas that can live within a single person. The assembled troupe also serves as needed emotional support as Ogawa delves into the intensely personal material, including the distant nature of their relationship with their deceased father, which the playwright described as “very cold.”
“To me, it doesn’t feel like I have to rip myself open, or tear open a wound, or rehash this toxic stuff,” said Ogawa, who debuted the play in 2018 and has performed it onstage more than 100 times in the years since. “There’s a structure of the play which protects me, and a structure I created with this ensemble in which we really carry and hold each other through the process. … So, yes, it is a deep journey, and it is an emotional journey, but I don’t come out the end feeling raw or triggered. I’m just enjoying myself as a performer and really feeling safe in the hands of the company I share the stage with.”
The structure and content of the play allows multiple points of entry for the audience. Ogawa said some find connection in the immigrant story, while others might see aspects of themselves in the parent-child dynamic, or in the desire for reconciliation embedded within the material. And though emotionally weighty, “The Nosebleed” isn’t without moments of levity, these more absurdist turns informing the play Ogawa is currently in the process of writing, titled “Meatsuit: The Shitshow of Motherhood.”
Ogawa said they were first drawn to the stage as a performer in high school, and “The Nosebleed” has served as a way to reconnect with these earlier passions. Entering into college, Ogawa said they shifted toward writing and directing largely out of necessity, owing to a dearth of roles well-suited to them. “And I decided if I was going to be a starving artist anyway, I at least wanted to make the art I wanted to make, and have it be meaningful to me,” they said. “It’s quite wonderful to be on the stage again. But all roads that I’ve taken have led me to this point, and I don’t have any regrets about any of it.”
Though limited, Ogawa said their earlier onstage experience helped prepare them for “The Nosebleed,” with the performer having previously played old men in various productions, including Robert Oppenheimer and Noam Chomsky. “So, let’s just say it’s in my wheelhouse to play an old man,” they said, and laughed.
But stepping into their father’s shoes also brought with it unintended consequences, as Ogawa began to unpack the relationship between the two from the elder’s perspective, which brought with it new degrees of understanding and empathy.
“The opportunity I have to embody him and put myself in his position for really the first time enables me to imagine and experience what he might have felt, and what he might have been going through,” Ogawa said. “So, that's been a new practice, and it's created some needed space for [reconciliation]. ... I think the emotional and psychological and spiritual work of the play has deepened as we’ve gone along. The intention of the play has always been for me to guide the audience through a very vulnerable space and toward healing and forgiveness.”